The Common Application, which has been simplifying college applications since 1975, has rolled out a new version of its application, christened CA4, effective August 2013. Applicants planning to enter college as freshmen or transfer students in the fall of 2014 should be aware of these changes. Homeschooling parents, take note, particularly if you have already worked with the Common App in previous years and are expecting it to be the same. It’s not!
Wait…Just What Is the Common Application?
If you are new to the college application circus, this is an entirely valid question that merits a bit of background. In short, the Common Application was designed to be a form that the student completes just once and then submits to as many member colleges as he/she plans to apply to. Currently, more than 500 colleges and universities are members. Thus, students have a wide variety of choices, and submitting the Common App cuts down on the paperwork quite significantly. In addition to answering the garden variety questions relating to personal and family information, extracurricular activities, and test scores, the student writes and submits one main application essay. Teacher recommendations are submitted “once and for all” within the application, and the school counselor or homeschool supervisor (often the parent) also prepares a report and a transcript that is sent out to the colleges the student has chosen. Individual colleges may require a supplementary portion to the application (here’s where the application becomes less simple than originally expected), in which the student answers college-specific questions. These may be as straightforward as listing the student’s intended major or reporting whether any relatives are alumni of the institution, or as complicated as writing one or several additional essays.
The Changes, in Brief…
Here is a rundown of the 2013 changes:
The site is now commonapp.org rather than commonapp.com.
Previous essay prompts have been completely revised, with a new enforced word limit and use of text-entry rather than document upload.
The extracurricular short essay has been removed from the main application and moved to college-specific supplements on the Member Page.
The Home School Supplement form has been removed, as has the Arts Supplement and Athletic Supplement (for these latter two supplements, information will be collected in other ways).
Additional information on school demographics is being requested within the School Report form.
An “Additional Information” section has been added.
An optional non-academic evaluation has been added.
Here is more detail on these changes:
The Application Essay, in All Its Glory…
First of all, the essay topics for the applicant’s personal statement have changed significantly. The previous six topics were used for many years and included a “Topic of choice” for students who preferred total freedom. Now, students choose one prompt from a set of five thought-provoking questions. A little more open-ended and nontraditional, these questions delve into asking students to share the story that is “so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it” or to describe a time of failure and reflect on the lessons learned from the experience. For the full list of prompts, see the Common Application site. And don’t get too attached to these questions; they will be reviewed annually and may change.
The essay length limit enforcement is another new element. Previously, no firm upper limits on word counts were mandated, though students were asked to respond in 500 words or less. Because essays were uploaded rather than being typed into a text box, strict word counts could not easily be tracked. This caused a certain amount of confusion and stress among students who wondered if their 510 word essay would be considered too long…or if it really didn’t matter and they could write 575 or 600 words. Now, essays are typed or pasted directly into a text entry box, and the essay will be cut off at the 650 word limit. In addition, essays shorter than 250 words will not be accepted. As was true in previous Common Application versions, students should not customize the essay for a particular college but should keep it generic enough to show their strengths to the entire spectrum of member colleges on their lists. With that said, students will be allowed to submit up to three “versions” of the essay, so small modifications and corrections may be made after the first submission.
Tell Me More…
An “Additional Information” section has been added for applicants who “wish to report circumstances or qualifications not reflected elsewhere in the application.” For homeschoolers, this could be a good place for briefly explaining their homeschool philosophy, for describing an unusual learning activity, or for explaining a semester of poor grades. It shouldn’t be construed to be an additional “brag box” except to note qualifications that truly did not fit elsewhere on the application. By no means should it repeat information that is already presented elsewhere.
In previous years, the Common Application included a 150-word short essay on a meaningful extracurricular activity. This appeared in the Writing section within the main application. Now this task has been placed into the college-specific supplements (appearing only for colleges interested in collecting this information). Within these supplements, colleges and universities may also ask for additional writing samples or personal statements. Certain colleges may ask for four or five different essays of varying lengths, so students should be thinking about how to highlight various aspects of their high school careers. Some colleges, but not all, may also allow uploaded documents such as resumes or research papers.
Believe It or Not – Less Paperwork
One change that streamlines the process a bit for homeschoolers is the elimination of the Home School Supplement. This form, which was previously used in addition to the School Report to gather information about the homeschool course of study and educational philosophy, is no longer in use. Instead, parents serving in the role of counselors should plan to report pertinent information on the School Report. When a student marks “homeschooled” as his or her school, the parent/counselor will be prompted to enter information about the homeschool in the context of the School Report.
Changes to the application itself involve a more streamlined, high tech approach, in the form of “smart” questions. The presentation of later questions will be driven by the student’s answers to earlier questions and will thus be presented only if relevant. Help features will appear on-screen as the student answers each question. Paper or snail-mailed versions of the application will be entirely discontinued, and thus the application is now 100% online. However, counselors and teachers may still opt to mail a printed form instead of completing the default electronic version. The student may prepare unlimited edits of the application (as opposed to the previous limit of ten versions); this feature will help students update information as their senior year progresses, or correct mistakes previously made.
Learning about the Whole Student
Homeschoolers often earn strong, complimentary recommendations from non-academic sources such as pastors, employers, volunteer supervisors, or coaches. Some member colleges now offer the option of providing a supplemental evaluation as a venue for submission of this information. Again, not all colleges the student may be applying for will make use of this information, but this change does open up the possibility of a more holistic evaluation of the student’s gifts and abilities.
In a traditional school, the School Report section is completed by the guidance counselor. For homeschoolers it is typically completed by the parent, or perhaps the administrator of the independent study program. This is the place to report facts about the school, such as whether students are ranked, what GPA scale is used, and how many honors or AP courses are offered. While certain items are simply not applicable to homeschoolers, the person filling out this report should make his or her best effort to answer them in a way that will be clear and understandable to the college.
A transcript of the high school courses will be uploaded along with the School Report, and the transcript should contain all courses and grades to date. Obviously, fall semester senior year courses may still be in progress. Former versions of the School Report contained a section in which to list courses for the senior year; this information is now expected to be placed on the transcript or attached separately.
Check It Out!
Obviously, the best way to become familiar with the new Common App is to check it out yourself by browsing the site. If your student will be applying to college this fall, encourage him or her to register on the site in order to navigate through the various sections and preview what will be asked. Help Centers for both the applicant and the recommender (which would be applicable for a homeschool parent filling out the School Report) contain knowledge bases of frequently asked questions. Users can also submit their own questions to be answered.
While applying for college can be tedious and at times overwhelming, the new CA4 is a giant step in the direction of streamlining the process. Enjoy!
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